There must be minor deities who have received less adulation than Mark Rylance has, for his Olivier and Tony-winning turn as ‘Rooster’ Johnny Byron in Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’. Now that Ian Rickson’s show has returned to the West End for a victory lap, Rylance fever has reached epic proportions, with this run set to rake in £14 million.
So what is there left to say about 'Jerusalem'? Maybe that behind the reverential descriptions of its lead actor – and according focus on the play’s loftier themes – it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Butterworth has written a wickedly funny comedy about a bunch of South-Western ne’er do wells getting off their nuts on an illegal caravan site in Wiltshire.
Litres of vodka and buckets of speed are consumed, live tortoises and hens pootle around Ultz’s splendid set and Rooster’s crew of oddball followers fondly reminisce about the days when the village fête had a kick-a-man-in-the-bollocks contest. Rooster’s rambling stories about encounters with giants take on an almost spiritual plausibility under Rylance’s weird charisma, but they’re also side-splittingly hilarious.
Re-opening in a week where the battle for Dale Farm raged, it’s hard to see ‘Jerusalem’ ever dating, at least not while there is some wildness left in England and people who wish to crush that wildness.
What is there left to say about Mark Rylance’s performance? Basically, believe the hype. In Rylance’s hands Rooster is a wayward force of nature: old, broken, capricious and ridiculous, but beneath it all possessed of
a gravity and power that runs centuries deep.
His astonishing final scene, bellowing mystic defiance at the implacable advance of modernity, is as close to real magic as you’ll find in our cold, tame city.